Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Wonder of Glue

Making rain drops.
I wrote a week or so ago about a magical day where everything went as planned and the children spent the day exploring, completely engrossed their activities. One of the activities that had them so engaged was making nature collages. When we make collages, I give the toddlers bottles of real Elmer'sTM glue. I've been doing this for years, to the surprise of most other toddler teachers I meet. There are several reasons for this. The basic reason is that not every project I have come up with can be completed effectively with glue. Some items just won't stick once the glue is dry.  The act of squeezing the glue out of the bottle helps develop fine motor and, sometimes, problem solving skills. By using real glue, the children learn so many things and can explore with it in ways they just can't so with a glue stick. So while glue sticks might be easier and more convenient for us teachers, the regular, old-fashioned glue is much better for the children.

Feeling the glue.
Last week was the first time this school year that I have pulled out the glue bottles. The older toddlers were familiar with them since we had used them often in the spring and summer. The only thing I had to do to get them interested was ask one older toddler if they wanted to use the glue and I had a table full before I knew it and children willing to wait for their turn as patiently as a two-year-old can. As they worked on the nature collages, the main focus simply shifted to the glue and what they could do with it. They made raindrops, roads, and imaginary places that included mountains cash registers, just to start with. Since their focus and interest was in the glue itself, I decided it was time to pull out the colored glue and glitter glue so they could continue exploring.

I've purchased different versions of glitter glue and colored glue over the years but the children have struggles with them. Either the glue comes out so fast that it's gone in an instant or the bottles are designed in a way that the toddlers cannot squeeze hard enough (and they will try!) to get the glue to come out. I've tried to make different kinds of glitter or colored glue over the years with varying levels of success. So this time, we made our own colored glue by mixing powder paint with white glue and then putting it in some squeeze bottles that we had been using for paint. I also found some airtight containers to save the extra glue in so we don't have to make it every day. We can go through a lot of glue in a day and running out was one of the issues we were having.

Getting started

A parent had recently gotten a huge pile of mat board donated from a framer that was closing up shop, which was perfect for the glue pictures.  Because we have so much, this project has been happening every day.  It wasn't until the middle of the week that I came up with the idea of using the old paint bottles for the glue and that is when the exploration really took off.  By Thursday, their interest was still strong in the glue so the the new glue bottles came out. There were only four bottles and it just happened that four children wanted to play. They each went to the stack of mat board, chose their board and brought it to the table. Each child was given a bottle of glue and they got to work. They were excited to be using the new bottles and seeing the vibrant colors of the glue.  

Some of them started out by continuing their exploration from earlier in the week. We had more children making raindrops by holding the bottles up high and squeezing slowly. They would watch the drops fall onto their board and try to make the drops change size or fall into a particular spot. There were some who squeezed glue into their hands and rubbed it in as if they were washing them. Toddlers are still very sensory oriented so I let them explore without interruption. If I stop them from trying things like this, they will still find a way and usually a less desirable way to explore. 

Then something really amazing happened. I had turned my back to write something down and when I was finished and turned back to the table, S. was telling me that he and D. had traded glue. Apparently they wanted to try another color so they figured out a way to make that happen. As I watched and they continued to explore, this spontaneous trading of glue bottles happened again and again. There were occasional disagreements about how long they should wait for their next turn or which color they wanted but, they worked it all out themselves. No temper tantrums, no crying and no need for adult intervention. These two-year-olds talked through each situation, listening to their peers and negotiating to the best of their abilities.

They started trading glue bottles so they could have more colors on their boards.

The irony is that my co-teacher and I had just recently been discussing how much they had been relying on us for help because the staff, the student staff and the two of us, had been stepping in too often and rescuing them when they probably could have solved their problems on their own or with less help. This is a pattern we have noticed over the last two years. Each semester, we get several new children so they need a little more support as they get used to the routines and tasks associated with full-day child care. The 'old' children that have been with us need help adjusting to the new children, sharing their primary caregiver's time with the new children and figuring out what their place or role is now. But there comes a time when we need to let them try more on their own. And we had passed that point a couple of several weeks ago.

Some glue spilled onto the table so he decided to clean it up, which lead to cleaning up his picture as well.

The finished, dry project.

So over that last few weeks we have been stepping in less often, usually only for repeated problems or when things looks like they may get physical. We are also watching more, and coaching the new staff to watch, for each child's non-verbal cues that they are reaching that peak of frustration and really do need some help.  Watching them work out the turn-taking and social problem-solving shows me that we have been doing the right thing. As an added benefit, we ended up with some amazing pictures. The pictures are another sensory activity as they love to run their hands over them to feel the glue patterns and textures. And they are learning about the properties of glue and what happens when it is left out to dry.

Toddlers are capable of doing much more on their own than we sometimes give them credit for. So when I look at wonderful pictures they created, I will be reminded of all the things these toddlers are capable of doing on their own and what great problem solving skills they have.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Whose Rules are They?

As adults and teachers or caregivers, we tend to prefer a sense of order. Which means we like rules and have them to apply to all sorts of situations. One rule that is used often in child care and preschool is that tables and chairs stay together. To go a step further, generally children are expected to sit in a chair while they are working at a table. To be honest, I used to have these rules in my class.

You might wonder what led me to eliminate that rule several years ago. I attended a conference several years ago sponsored by the Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children. While I can no longer remember the presenters' names, I do remember what I learned from a session on toddler activities.  These two ladies shared some wonderful ideas which led to a discussion of rules for toddlers. When setting rules, they considered two things: Is it a safety issue and if not, is it something they could live with. They shared that their toddlers had started taking the play dough to the dramatic play center. They had previously banned this practice but as the children continued, they decided to re-evaluate.  They decided they could live with a little play dough in the carpet so the rule was eliminated and everyone was happier.

A few years later, I started learning about the teachings of Magda Gerber, who advocates for unstructured, uninterrupted play time for infants and toddlers. Gerber advises parents and care givers to "allow and trust babies to be initiators, explorers, and self learners." Instructing a fully engaged child to sit in their chair can inadvertently interrupt their thoughts and explorations, sometimes causing them to lose interest altogether. This simply reinforced the idea that toddlers should have simple rules and be able to freely explore.  

I am constantly re-evaluating and adjusting the rules based on what I know about toddlers in general and the group currently in my care. There are now six basic rules, mainly reminders to the staff. The only rule regarding chairs is that children must be sitting when eating, in order to lessen the likelihood of choking. Every now and then, though, I hear a teacher tell a child that the chair needs to stay at the table or they need to sit down while they paint. After a while, these teachers generally become comfortable with children choosing to do otherwise. It helps when they get to see what those same children can do with a chair.

If chairs always had to stay at the table, we wouldn't have children coming together on their own to have circle time and sing songs.

There would be no trains, buses, helicopters or airplanes for the whole class to ride in. 

There would be no child-led story time.

Likewise, if they always have to sit when doing art or play dough, there would be no discovery that glue can form 'rain drops.'

We wouldn't be able to spread our creation out when we run out of space or get the right leverage to make it do what we want.

With the youngest toddlers, I have watched them play with chairs simply as chairs. I have been watching the youngest two in the group come to the table and sit down when they notice other children at the table. Usually this would happen at meal times and I would have them leave the table because they had already eaten. After a couple weeks of this, it dawned on me that they were coming to the table simply because they could. It hadn't dawned on me that, at home, they were being put into their high chairs, cribs, etc, since the average household isn't filled with child-sized furniture. Just being able to get in and out of the chairs on their own, safely, was a learning experience. So now when they come to the table, I welcome them to sit down and chat with their peers.

The older toddlers are quite fond of tools. They go around the classroom 'fixing' things all day long. Now it is quite common to find one of them lying on their back, under the table, 'fixing' it. I could stop it because they might get stepped on or someone might trip over them. But, if that does happen, I will deal with it as a teachable moment. And I will continue to re-evaluate the rules, making changes when necessary. Until then, let the exploration continue.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Magical Day of Play

Today was one of those rare days with toddlers where there were no major melt-downs, tantrums or arguments. Aside from a two-and-half-year-old doing some minor limit testing and a 15-month-old who wanted to wash her hands every 30 seconds, it was a quiet day where the children led pretty much everything. The only question or idea I offered up today was asking one child (the limit tester, actually) if he wanted to do some more gluing like he did yesterday. He had really enjoyed exploring with the glue so he gladly shook his head and said yes. I told him to go get a board from the pile of mat board that a parent had gotten donated for us. He went straight to the board without needing any reminders of where to find one, picked one out saying, "this one," and brought it right to the table to get started. As I looked for a full glue bottle, he took the bag, pulled one out and said, "big one." Generally the children use the smaller glue bottles in my class but I had a feeling I was just going to be re-filling soon so I let him take the big one.

He spent the next 10 minutes with the glue. The idea was to make a nature collage, which he had done the previous day before abandoning it to explore with the glue. He had learned yesterday that if he put glue all over his hands, the paper or items could stick to his hands so I was curious to see what he would do with the glue today. He chose one stick from the sensory table full of nature materials and promptly glued that on his board. He added a few more items but, it was really about the glue today. He discovered that if he held the glue up high and squeezed just a little, it looked like raindrops. The excitement on his face as he made more raindrops was contagious.

One of the girls joined us at the table and followed his idea, for the most part. She glued one stick on, then made a picture with the glue. She eagerly told me about her picture. "You have to go around the bend. This is the mountain and you  have to go through it." Along the way, a pile of 'sneaky mud' showed up ("you don't want to go there, it's slippery") along with a cash register to mark the end point. She told the story several times as she added more glue, barely changing the details.


Another boy joined in and didn't even bother with the collage materials. He just wanted to 'queeze' the glue. You can see the focus as he works on squeezing the glue out. He was so engrossed that we brought out the colored and glitter glues we haven't used yet this school year. He spent a good five or so minutes at this activity, which isn't bad for a child who is choosy about art activities.

Even the 15-month-old joined in. While squeezing the glue was a bit tough for her, exploring with it and spreading it was not.

Once the glue exploration wrapped up, I noticed two children in the gross motor area pretending it was nap time. One would lie on a row of cardboard brick blocks while the other one rubbed their back, as the teachers do at nap time. They decided they needed a chair so they moved one of the blocks out to be the chair. Over the course of fifteen or more minutes, these children changed roles, taking turns being the napper and the teacher, at least six times. They listened to each other and responded in a genuine to-way conversation.

As this wrapped up, some of the children migrated to the dramatic play area. Someone brought me a bucket full of clothes and announced "make lunch" as he placed the bucket on the table in front of me. He 'cooked' more clothes for the children there, telling us it was how. A few minuted later, this play had evolved into dress up and the three two-year-olds experimented with putting the clothes on. They dressed themselves, trying until they got it. One child discovered that taking his shoes off made it easier to put the shorts on. The other two noticed and followed his example successfully. They cheered each other on and offered both encouragement and help. This took up the rest of the morning. They were so engaged and productive that all the teachers did was watch and offer just minimal support as needed.

Why is this important, you might ask? They weren't learning to name their colors, count, practice their alphabet or any of those other academic schools that come to mind when the word learning is thrown out there. But, research has shown that extended free play helps children develop the important skill of self-regulation. During all this play and exploration, these children had abundant opportunities to practice skills that help develop executive function. They practiced self-control as they squeezed just the right amount of glue and stayed in their roles during pretend play. They communicated with each other and took turns, both in conversation and in play. They solved problems and made new discoveries.  They managed their emotions and didn't give up when things weren't working.

There was so much learning happening that I will probably have to write about it in more detail later. It's days like this that make me remember why I love what I do and remind me just how important the early years are.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Lesson in Self-Control

Working with young toddlers has definitely presented its fair share of challenges. While we tried to prepare for the change, we talked about the areas they would need help with, as compared to the older toddlers. We knew they were going to need some help with feeding, which is completely new to us. It has always been my policy to let the older feed themselves, even if they were still pretty messy with things like yogurt or applesauce. I prefer to let them practice then change their clothes afterward if they are messy.

While it's easy to train the staff on the needs of the younger toddlers, getting them to step back and give the children (including the older toddlers) time to work out a problem is much more difficult.  Adults tend to get distressed when they see a young child struggling and step in to rescue the child. Janet Lansbury at Elevating Child Care has written about it here and here. Seeing the staff doing a lot of rescuing made me wonder just how often I might be doing it myself. After all, they learn through modeling as much as the children do. So I am making a concentrated effort to not step in so early right now.

There is a 15-month-old boy in the class who has a tendency to wait for adult help before taking a risk. When he was starting to walk, if he got to a place where he no longer had a hand-hold, his preferred method of navigating was to get the attention of an adult so they would hold his hand and help him walk to the desired location. After a while, my co-teacher and I started to notice that if we left him alone, he could accomplish quite a bit. He spent an entire morning teaching himself to walk down the ramp/slide in our gross motor area a few weeks ago.  He would crawl to the top, stand up, then hold onto the wall as he walked down. On the first attempt, he fell before reaching the bottom. He cried a bit but neither of us could get over to help him right away. So we watched him from where we were with other children. As he cried, he pulled himself up then crawled right back up the ramp. He repeated this five or six times before he was successful in reaching the bottom without falling down. The smile on his face showed just how proud he was of himself.

So when I saw him playing in the fine motor area by himself earlier this week, I got out the camera and just watched to see what he might do. Below is a clip of him playing with balls and tubes. He had just pulled to whole toy over on himself trying to stand up and I thought he might give up and go play with something else.  The first time he got the ball in the tube then peered into the tube to see it fall, it took all my control not to tell him the ball was already on the floor. You will see that after a couple tries, he stops looking through the tube and goes straight to the floor to find the ball. What I would have taught him by verbalizing it on the first attempt, he learned on his own.

We tell the children all the time that we know how hard it is for them to wait. It's something we need to remind ourselves of every now and then. If we exercise a little self-control, we might just pick up on something amazing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Simple but Challenging

Ever since we started thinking about enrolling one-year-olds in my classroom, I have been trying to come up with activities that will work for them but also be challenging or appealing for the older toddlers as well.  I am fortunate that I do get a budget each year for purchasing materials of my choosing. However, so many of the commercial products, while cute and visually appealing,  are either quite expensive, make noise, light up or are just fairly closed-ended (or even all of the above). I also teach college level courses and use some of the More than books as texts, which encourage the use of open-ended materials.

The advantage of these open-ended materials is that children at a range of levels can use them. They can also be cheap so we can get a lot more for our money. Trying to supply materials that will engage one- and two- (almost three-) year-olds presents its own set of challenges. We have to be even more conscious about choke hazards than before and consider whether the materials will holdup the mouthing and handling of young toddlers. After today's project, I think we are headed in the right direction. Not only did all the children enjoy using the materials but, I learned a lot about each child I worked with and I have some good observations for assessment purposes.

Using some donated plastic coffee cans, we made our own shape sorters. I cut holes in the lid of each can to fit the three different sizes of apples and acorns in our dramatic play area. We set the cans out with the apples and acorns and added a few gourds and pumpkins to add some interest for the children who had not been using the apples much over the last week.

The children spent a good portion of small group time fitting the various items through the holes. Some used the trial and error method while others simply opted for can with the largest hole and proceeded to fill it up.

One two-and-a-half-year-old was able to place the large and small apples in the correct hole without testing. He did resort to the trial and error method for the medium-size apples.

When the containers were full, I expected the children to take the lids off (as they have in the past) and empty the container, as this almost three-year-old did.

I was surprised to see each child try their own method for getting the items back out.  
Some used the shake-it-out method.

While others tried to reach in and pull the items out.

What surprised me the most was the two boys who did not really try to take the lids off when the shaking and reaching methods didn't work. They asked me, more than once, to help get the items out. I turned it back to them asking what they could try. I even suggested at one point removing the lids, but didn't offer to remove the lids for them.  One of the boys, the same one who had no trouble discerning small and large actually, even asked me to take the lid off of his container. I suggested he try and he did briefly then resorted to reaching in to get the last apples.

I learned from this experience that we, the teachers, have been doing to much for the children and are not giving them the space or encouragement to try it themselves. Magda Gerber advises us to tailor our support to meet each child's need and to give just enough support to help the child move forward rather than giving up out of frustration. So while the children practice working with the size sorters this week, the teachers will be practicing stepping back.
It's Playtime at hands on : as we grow

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What's in a day?

At a recent staff meeting, I asked our new staff members to share their experiences working in other child care centers. As they talked, more than one mentioned how much more structure there is in my class than in these other centers. Which surprised me, because I tend to think of my classroom as being very flexible. We do have set routines that we follow each day. We have breakfast at the same time, change diapers, have some small group experiences, snack, and so forth throughout the day. We have activities or experiences planned for certain days or times.

However, while we do things in the same order each day, most of the day children can choose where they want to play or what they want to do. If they are involved in an activity, we do our best to give them as much as they need or want to explore with that activity. If it's a nice day outside, we try to spend more time outside. We've even gotten to the point that they choose what they want to take outside with them. There are few items that I insist they keep inside, mostly because they are easy to lose in the grass.

We were saving this bowling activity to use inside on a rainy day.

Taking art and writing materials outside gives them a quiet choice outside.

At the same time, when we offer an art project, water play or other small group activity, children are free to choose whether or not they participate. We offer the same activity for several days because we know some children will get too busy or interested elsewhere on a given day.  We have also been known to scrap an activity altogether because the children have some up with a better idea, or at least a more interesting idea to them.

This painting activity happened after nap one day simply because one of the children at the table asked if they could paint. As you can see, others chose to join in while the rest finished their snack.

Which leads me to wonder what they meant by structure. When I think of structure, I think of the daily routine. Could they mean the underlying discipline and self control? Or the consistent expectations and rules? I'm curious to know what others think.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Play vs. Learning

In the early childhood field, the debate over play vs. learning is ever-present. There are those who feel strongly that children should be engaged in formal, teacher-led learning activities. Children need to learn their colors, shapes, numbers and abc's and the earlier we introduce them the better they will learn. Then there is the opposing view that the early childhood years should be all about play. Children need unstructured play to explore and teachers should give them ample space and time to do so.

But, why does it have to be either/or? Why can't that learning happen through play? As I was looking back at some photos from the last two weeks, I came across some pictures of a group of two-year-olds engaged in playing 'sleepy,' as they called it. We had spent the morning making applesauce and tasting different kinds of apples. The children were free to select yellow, red, or green apples at snack and the teachers talked with them about the ones they liked or didn't like. We talked about the colors of the apples and the tastes. Children who wanted to help make the applesauce were given plastic knives and a plate to practice cutting their apples. We talked about how hard the apples were to cut, different ways to use the knives and many other things. We talked about how to cook the apples to make applesauce and how to be safe in the kitchen around the stove. This was obviously a planned activity for the day with lots of learning potential.

But, I think they learned just as much, if not more, when this same group of children joined together in pretend play. One of the boys laid himself down on the floor and tried to cover himself with a blanket, saying he was going to sleep. Another child joined and another until there 4-5 of them playing this game together. They took turns covering each other up or being the ones to sleep. They rubbed each others backs, like we do for them at nap time. They told us (more than once, I might add!), "Shh! Be quiet. I'm going to sleep."  This activity went on for over a half hour, without very little support or intervention from the teachers. For the most part, we sat back and watched or listened when they included us in their conversations.

Many outsiders walking in on this activity would likely think the children were 'just playing.' But, the children were learning valuable skills as they sustained this activity. They had to negotiate with each other to decide which role they would play, what color scarf or blanket  they could have or who would rub their back. They practiced conversation skills and turn taking. They learned about spatial relationships, shape and size as they figured out which blankets covered them up. They solved problems when they ran out of blankets and found scarves to substitute. They practiced naming colors and using words for different sizes, increasing their vocabulary.  They practiced focusing on the same activity for an extended period of time.  Toddlers can sustain an activity for extended periods when they are interested and not interrupted.
It's Playtime at hands on : as we grow
They were so engaged in this activity that we didn't interrupt even though it was past their normal lunch time. We waited for them to us and let us know they were wither hungry or finished with the game. We could have interrupted them in order to stay on our regular schedule and manage all the routine care activities for the day. But if we had, they would have missed out on so much. None of this was planned, beyond providing the materials and setting the interest areas up in an inviting way, and look at all the learning that happened.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Quality vs. Quantity

We have decided at my center to participate in STARS, the state's quality rating system for child care providers. Like most state rating systems, the number of stars we are awarded depends on the score we achieve on the ITERS-R and ECERS-R. As part of the application process, a quality coordinator from the state comes out to a baseline rating in order to identify strengths and areas for improvement and to give the center a general idea of where they stand. Then we write and implement a quality improvement plan to help us get the highest rating possible.

A few weeks ago, we got the report back for my classroom and as my co-teacher and I reviewed it, we were surprised at how low our language scores were. Anyone that has ever set foot in my classroom has heard how much we talk with the children. We talk with them so much that they start carrying on their own, very real, conversations with each other.  I love the time of year when we get to the point that the children don't need us to sustain a conversation. It tells me we have done our job well. After all, these are only two-year-olds.

It was explained to us that we should be saying something to a child approximately every three minutes. While I don't disagree that talking with children is important, I strive toward creating meaningful interactions with the children in my care, based on their needs and interests at that moment. The problem with explaining things in such simple terms is that it can lead to talking just for the sake of meeting that requirement.

I have been in many child care centers as a consultant over the years and have worked in my fair share of them, too. Too often, I hear teachers talking at children simply because they have been told repeatedly that it is important to talk to children to help with language development.  These types of mindless interactions can lead to frustration in children. Sometimes that well-intentioned question is all it takes to interrupt a child's train of thought or derail it altogether. Most adults get irritated when they are in the immersed in a project they are enjoying and someone interrupts them. Why should we expect children to feel any different?

It is less common to meet a toddler teacher that is intentional in their interactions. It is so easy to get wrapped up in getting all the diapers changed or feeding all the children and forget that these are small people we are dealing with, not objects.  These routine activities are great times for one on one interactions. Rather then rushing through the diaper change quickly and with little thought about manipulating the child's body to accomplish the task, why not take the time to talk with the child? Tell them in simple language what you are doing and have them participate. Ask them to lift their legs up or try to pull their own pants up or down.  The more the child is involved and engaged, the more they will trust and respect the caregiver. These are important relationship building activities.

All too often, during play time, I see teachers trying to show a child how to play with a toy rather then letting the child explore.  Or, they are trying to teach the child something, like colors or shapes. They overlook the fact that everything a toddler does is a learning experience.  If we teachers get out their way and let them explore, the possibilities are endless.  But, we know that they do our help and support sometimes as they play.  Teachers can enhance the learning by stepping in to assist if a child seems frustrated or by using mirror talk (narrating what a child is doing). The trick is to wait for the child's cue. When a child looks at you or shows you a toy, that is a wonderful opportunity to add some language or introduce a new word. Then step back and see what happens next. When we constantly bombard them with questions, observations or language just for the sake of talking, they eventually tune us out, become frustrated or lose interest in the activity. By making our interactions meaningful and giving them some space and time, they will learn these things when they are ready. Quality, not quantity.